The Healthy Helena: Food and Mood

Image Source: The Healthy Helena // Helena Holdsworth

Whilst it’s well known that eating a healthy, balanced diet is beneficial for our physical health, people are often unaware of the impact our nutrition has on our mental health.  With the current bleak and often stressful environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, comfort foods are tempting ways to lift our spirits. However, sugary treats and processed foods can often have the reverse effects, and it is important to nourish and nurture your body with the right nutrition in order to feel your finest.

Serotonin is the key hormone that regulates our mood and impacts our feelings of well-being and happiness, and studies have shown that low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviour. 90% of our serotonin is produced in our gut. Therefore, mental health and neurological issues can occur when we have low levels of healthy gut bacteria and microbes.

The gut is often labelled as our second brain as it contains the second largest network of nerves in our body besides our head. Scientists call this second brain our enteric nervous system (ENS), containing two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining our gastrointestinal tract. Have you ever experienced a gut feeling, or butterflies in your stomach? This sensation is caused by our nerves in the gut communicating back and forth with our brain which is essentially our gut-brain axis. Irritation in the gastrointestinal system can, therefore, send signals to the central nervous system triggering mood changes. Indeed, this explains why a higher than normal percentage of people with digestive issues such as IBS develop depression and mood disorders.   

Scientists are frequently finding new evidence to support the concept of the gut-brain axis. The SMILES trial (Jacka et al. 2017) was a randomised controlled, single blinded trial where sixty-seven people with diagnosed depression were allocated either a dietary intervention group or a befriending social support group. Across the twelve weeks of the trial the dietary intervention involved a modified balanced Mediterranean diet and seven sessions with a dietitian, whilst in the befriending group participants met with a member of the research team and discussed topics they enjoyed, that were not emotional or related to their mental health.

By the end of the trial, 32% in the dietary support group were considered to be in remission compared to 8% in the social support group, highlighting how dietary improvement may be an important facilitator to current treatment for depression, and other mood disorders.

So how can we nourish our gut health and help efficiently produce our serotonin?  Here are my top ten superfoods and tips for keeping your gut microbes well fed and happy.

 Helena’s Healthy Gut Hitlist:

  • Fermented foods: Probiotics occur naturally in foods that have undergone the fermentation process.  Foods such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut are all great at improving digestion.
  • Fill up on fibre: Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates that feed our gut bacteria. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables all contain prebiotic fibre that keep our gut microbes nourished.
  • Avoid unnecessary antibiotic usage: When taking antibiotics our healthy gut bacteria is destroyed. These changes to our gut flora can lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects. When taking antibiotics, it is important to take probiotics during and after your course to restore your guts healthy state.
  • Powerful Polyphenols: Cocoa, green tea, olive oil, coffee and red wine (in moderation), all contain polyphenols which are plant chemicals digested by our gut bacteria and boost our gut health.

Helena Holdsworth

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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